In Search of the Historical Jesus

I.  Is it possible that Talpiot is the site of the authentic “Jesus Family Tomb?”

    Recently, there has been renewed excitement over the 1980 discovery of a cave in Talpiot containing ossuaries or “bone boxes” inscribed with names corresponding to various members of Jesus’ immediate family as well as that of Mary Magdalene. My first encounter with this startling discovery occurred while listening to my brother’s audiobook version of James Tabor’s riveting chronicle The Jesus Dynasty.  I found it so exciting that I not only immediately bought the print edition but also Jacobovici and Pellegrino’s The Jesus Family Tomb, the book that had so popularized the discovery and led to the film “expose.”

    According to Professor Tabor’s rendition, apparently from the beginning of the discovery the intrigue has still not died down.  Initially two of the ossuaries went missing shortly after their discovery, but later, bone boxes with patinas (the soil, bacteria, and various unique substances covering the boxes and cave surfaces) matching those in the  burial cave were finally located. One, in the hands of a collector, bore the inscription in Aramaic: “Jacob (James) the brother of Jesus.” Then, of the several ossuaries stored in the Israeli government’s archaeological repository bearing the inscription: “Jesus son of Joseph,” the patina of one of the boxes was found to match the patinas of the other boxes in the Talpiot cave.  Needless to say, huge turmoil ensued. Was the cave really the original resting place of the most famous and possibly the most important figure in human history or were the names on the ossuaries a cruel and tantalizing coincidence? Worse yet, was the entire episode of the “Jesus Family Tomb” a terrible hoax?

    Clearly, the Israeli government and the Vatican both “prayed” that the whole thing was indeed a hoax.  Unbeknownst to most people, the State of Israel and the Holy See have maintained a most amicable and mutually beneficial relationship for many years.  Neither of them had any desire to see an all out religious war erupt over the authenticity of the now famous burial cave, a war pitting the mortality of Jesus versus his divinity.  And so, they saw it as their solemn responsibility to prove that the names on the ossuaries in the cave were a coincidence and that the inscription on the ossuary of James was a forgery.  Various scholars and archaeologists disagreed among themselves, some affirming and some denying the probability that the cave was indeed that of Jesus’ family or if the James ossuary had been tampered with, something never proven decisively even after several years of bitter litigation.

    Many scholars have gone out of their way to show that one of the ossuary inscriptions, “Mariamene e Mara,” Greek for “Mary the Great,” or “Mary the Lord-ess” might actually  mean “Mary also known as Mara” and thus not refer to Mary Magdalene of the Bible but to someone nicknamed “Mara,”  Greek for “Martha.” *  Others point to the evidence over the cave entrance, the same all-seeing eye visible on the U.S. dollar bill, inherited through the Masons from the Knights Templar who were reputed to be the guardians of what was considered during the Crusades to be the Jesus Family Tomb.  Meanwhile the Israeli government had hushed any publicity regarding the original discovery of the cave for as long as possible and to further complicate the matter, apparently a group of religious Jewish students had long ago removed any actual bones found in the cave and had them buried immediately as strictly mandated by Jewish law.  Why then, so many years after the initial excitement and furor, with books and films no longer flaming the dispute over the authenticity of the “Talpiot Tomb,” should it still be a source of excitement for biblical scholars and curious lay people?

    The answer to this question lies in the fact that the tomb remains the only archaeological site ever found that may represent an authentic physical link to living, breathing human beings associated with a real “Jesus the son of Joseph” or a real “James the brother of Jesus” or , in fact, with a whole “family” of real people with the very names identified in the synoptic Gospels.  Despite all of the nonsensical attempts of critics to dispute the miniscule statistical probability of coincidentally finding all of these names in one cave, no one can reasonably deny that the names match those “penned” by the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John even if someday we find that they do not actually match up with the same historical figures to whom the authors refer.  Thus the tantalizing discovery of the Talpiot Tomb and the statistical probability of the names on the ossuaries matching the names in the Gospel tales are too striking for anyone seriously searching for the historical Jesus to dismiss out of hand.  So, where do we go from there?

    Over the years, many scholars have debated which languages Jesus as well as his disciples may have spoken, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek?  Personally, given Josephus’s admission that his native language was Aramaic and that he never quite mastered Greek, I would guess they spoke Aramaic fluently and the last two to some degree.  There is, however, a far more important question, often glossed over by many scholars.

II.  With what languages were the New Testament authors familiar?

    In the time of the historical Jesus, the most commonly spoken languages in Israel were most likely Aramaic and Greek.  Hebrew, always a “holy” language was certainly used most commonly in prayers and books of the Bible, but even many Israelites may have been familiar with the language, but not really fluent in it.  This is also strongly suggested by the fact that in the Talpiot and other tombs, some of the inscriptions were in Aramaic and others in Greek. In the years after Jesus’ burial, more and more people began speaking Greek which was accepted as the official language of the entire Roman Empire.  In fact, it was well before this time that we are told that seventy Rabbis were supposedly assigned the task of translating the Hebrew Pentateuch into Greek. Their work was called the “Septuagint,” in honor of the legend of the “seventy” authors of the work.  The translation, along with eventual Greek translations of the rest of the Old Testament became popular all across the Roman Empire with most scholars outside of Israel using it as their primary biblical source.  In fact, obvious differences in the meanings of certain words in the original Hebrew versus the Greek translation of the Bible would create huge, sometimes highly embarrassing disputes between Christian and Jewish scholars as well as between opposing Christian scholars.

    You may ask, why is it important to know in which languages the authors of the New Testament were fluent?  The importance lies in the probability that, except for Paul, who proudly admits to having studied under Rabbi Gamliel, grandson of the greatest of the liberal Pharisees, Rabbi Hillel, none of the other gospel authors likely studied or were able to study the Old Testament in Hebrew, even the apparent “Jewish Christian” author of the “Matthew” Gospel, nor did they appear to be more than minimally familiar with Aramaic.  Thus the argument over the Mary Magdalene ossuary becomes even more interesting as “Magdalene” in Hebrew most likely refers to Mary’s “largeness,” that is her “greatness,” not her origin from a  place called “Magdala.” Similarly, only in the Gospels of “Mark,” “Matthew,” “Luke’” and “John” is there any hint that Jesus came from a place called “Nazareth.” Paul seems to know better. There are simply too many embarrassing instances of mistranslations and linguistic mistakes in the  synoptic Gospels to assume that the authors understood more than a modicum of Hebrew and Aramaic.

III. Is there some sort of disconnect between Paul and the authors of the synoptic Gospels?

It is very difficult to ignore the fact that for the most part, Paul, who wrote decades before the synoptic authors, judiciously avoids discussing “Jesus’s” biography.  It is apparent that he knows little about the “human” Jesus, except that he was born and died and was resurrected. In fact, he seems to have little interest in the mortal whom he has never met.  Instead he is interested in the spirit of Jesus.  Paul alone honors this spirit with the title: “Christ Jesus.”  (“Jesus Christ,” also a title, is used in some of his letters as well).  There is no indication in Paul’s epistles that he is familiar with the name of the actual person associated with this holy spirit.  Paul, the first New Testament author, at least familiar with Hebrew and Aramaic and fluent in Greek, is referring to his “Christ,” that is his “anointed” and to his “Jesus,” that is, “savior.” In fact, the equivalent in Paul’s Aramaic, I believe, would be Eashoa’ Msheekha or “The Anointed Life Giver.” Thus he is referring to his “Anointed Savior,” the same title accorded to Judah the Maccabee, the original “anointed savior” of Israel who had miraculously saved the Jerusalem and the Israelites from the army of Antiochus and the Seleucids some 175 years earlier.  It was the same Judah, “The Hammer,” a priest who established the new “Hasmonean,” non “Davidic” royal family, leading up to the rule of King Herod who was apparently a Hasmonean through his mother despite her intermarriage.

    On the other hand, Paul’s new “Anointed Savior” is descended from both the priesthood and the line of King David through his mother’s lineage.  Paul, apparently educated to some degree in the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament and Jewish history, seems aware of this. He never refers to his  “Savior” as “Jesus of Nazareth,” because it does not refer to anyone with whom he is familiar. For Paul and even later Pharisees and other Talmudic scholars studying the original Hebrew version of Isaiah, there is no term “of Nazareth,” there is instead, as Professor Tabor reminds us,  the term “Ha Notzri,’” meaning a descendant from “the root” or “netzer” [of King David], a major requirement for any legitimate claimant to the title “King of the Jews.”  Thus to be Paul’s Hebrew “Anointed Savior” or “Yehoshua Ha Mashiach ben David,” one must also be a “Notzri” but nowhere is there a requirement to be “from Nazareth.”

    So, ask yourself, if “Christ Jesus” and “Jesus Christ” are titles, was “Jesus” the actual name of the “anointed” one or Hebrew “Messiah” to whose spirit Paul refers many years  before any other author does so? Was the name of the man “Immanu-el,” or “God is with us” as the author of the book of Matthew suggests from his reading of Isaiah?  Was it Judah the Galilean as Unterbrink suggests and whose timeline seems to more accurately follow events in Roman records?  Who really was that enigmatic soul who would become perhaps the greatest figure in human history? It does not matter what religion one practices to convey the excitement involved in trying to recreate the time, the situation, and the identity of this magnificent human being whether he was a man or a god or both.  To scholars, the great disappointment of the New Testament is that in their sincere and overriding life and death mission to portray “the big picture,” New Testament authors seem to have excused themselves from the need to corroborate their facts. Thus ironically and sadly, any historical truths to be found in the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John may well be coincidental.  This, I’m afraid, leads to a final question regarding the mystery of the Talpiot Tomb, one that I do not believe has ever been sufficiently explored and one I have thus far tried to avoid asking.

IV:  Does the Talpiot Tomb corroborate the biblical stories of the historical Jesus, Son of Joseph  or is the tomb itself the source of the identity of a Jesus, Son of Joseph as well as the family on which the synoptic Gospel authors expounded in their own attempt to reconstruct the biography of the historical Jesus?  Is it not possible that given the number of proclaimed “Jewish Messiahs” crucified by the Romans that decades after Paul, these authors were still unaware of the actual human identity of their authentic “Messiah, King of the Jews,” but were willing to sacrifice their very lives, given the importance of “His” holy message?

    I cannot see how any biblical scholar or archaeologist worth his salt, could resist the excitement of revisiting the great treasures of the Talpiot Tomb.  By the same token, I would challenge those same scholars to finally pay due attention to the woeful lack of familiarity of the authors of, “Mark,” “Matthew,” “Luke,” and “John” and so many of the early Church fathers with Hebrew and Aramaic as opposed to Paul’s apparent familiarity with the languages.  In fact, we must ask ourselves how much this may have contributed to the earlier Church fathers’ obvious lack of respect for the legitimacy of so many Syriac gospels and renditions of the New Testament. If we are not afraid, I believe that the careful study of the ancient languages may still represent one of the best chances we have to unlock the door to the great mystery of the identity of the historical Jesus.

Allen Finkelstein, D.O., M.Ed  12/23/17

* Followup on article by  Eugene j. Pentiuc: “Why Do You Seek the Living One Among the Dead? Some Remarks on ‘The Lost tomb of Jesus’”

    Mr. Pentiuc seems to hone in on what he calls “the only one name that is at the core of the “filmmaker’s” theory, Mariamene e Mara rendered ‘Mary known as master.’  He cites the respected cataloguer of Jewish Ossuaries L.Y. Rahmani’s reading as “Mariamenou [e] Mara meaning “of Mariamene, who is (also called) Mara,” which ultimately is a contraction for “Martha.”  His argument seems to be equally plausible as does that of filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. However, if the Synoptic Gospel authors’ familiarity with Hebrew and Aramaic names was as limited as their writings seem to indicate, given the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and even the stories in the synoptics, it is far more likely that “Magdalene” refers to Mary’s “greatness” than to her being from a place called “Magdala.”  Ironically, either or even both “sides” could be right and not solve our mystery because we don’t know if any of the authors that we have mentioned had knowledge of this specific tomb! If they did know of it and built the names in their accounts around the names in the cave, than the actual meaning of the name on “Mariamene of Talpiot’s” ossuary, while still intriguing, becomes a moot point in terms of our argument and no threat to positions of those overly concerned about Jesus’ marital status or whether it was his spirit or his physical body that was risen from the grave.